Following reports that refineries and petrochemical plants released millions of pounds of pollutants because of Hurricane Harvey, which battered Southeast Texas last month, test results published on Monday by the New York Times confirmed concerns that "Houston's floodwaters are tainted with toxins."
The storm's unprecedented "1,000-year flood," triggered by record rainfall generated by the hurricane, left large swaths of the Houston metro area under water. As the region begins its long road to recovery, and residents attempt to regain access to their homes, those who encountered tainted waters during the storm are already experiencing consequences.
Regional medical professionals told the Times they have seen a doubling of skin infections, and "some families in inundated neighborhoods in west Houston said they had developed staph infections and other health problems after wading through waters released from reservoirs that swamped their homes long after other parts of the city had dried out," the paper reports.
Public health experts are urging residents to take precautions.
"Residents attempting to return to flooded homes may have to contend with contaminated water and air because the city's sewer systems overflowed during the floods," Reuters reported Saturday. "Fire chief Samuel Pena said people returning home should wear breathing masks and consider getting tetanus shots."
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 40 of 1,219 wastewater treatment plants in the area were not working as of Monday, and Times test results revealed "water flowing down Briarhills Parkway in the Houston Energy Corridor contained Escherichia coli, a measure of fecal contamination, at a level more than four times that considered safe."
The Times describes Briarhills Parkway as "an upscale development in Houston's West Oaks/Eldridge neighborhood." Samples from another neighborhood showed even more alarming levels of contamination—from sewage and metals. The Times reports:
In the Clayton Homes public housing development downtown, along the Buffalo Bayou, scientists found what they considered astonishingly high levels of E. coli in standing water in one family's living room—levels 135 times those considered safe—as well as elevated levels of lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals in sediment from the floodwaters in the kitchen.
For the report, journalists from the Times accompanied a team from Baylor Medical College, Rice University, and the Houston health department's Bureau of Pollution Control and Prevention to collect water and sediment samples, which were tested (on the Times' dime) by A&B Labs.
As the results revealed, sewage contaminents are among many contributors to the tainted waters in Texas. AP reports that "also stirred into the noxious brew are spilled fuel, runoff from waste sites, lawn pesticides, and pollutants from the region's many petroleum refineries and chemical plants."
Following the hurricane, EPA review of aerial footage revealed that at least 13 toxic waste sites in Texas were damaged by the storm, and an explosion at an Arkema chemical plant in Harris County caused smoke to billow through nearby neighborhoods, triggering evacuations. Although the county sheriff claimed the smoke wasn't toxic, first responders are now suing the state, claiming they experienced "serious bodily injuries" from inhaling it.
Details were released Monday about the largest known gasoline spill caused by the storm: two storage tanks dumped nearly a half-million gallons of gas along the Houston Ship Channel. The spill was more than 10 times worse than the company initially reported in late August. According to AP reporting, at least two dozen other fuel and chemical tanks were damaged from rainfall or fully swept away during floods.
Even in regions where the flooding has receded, access to safe drinking water remains a concern. As of last weekend, Reuters reported that 70,000 people were without access to running water, and another 380,000 were being encouraged to boil water from taps before using it.